Picture Book Perusal: The Secret of Black Rock

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Today’s book is full of adventure and secrets, danger and hope and as such is the perfect winter read to snuggle up with.  We received The Secret of Black Rock by Joe Todd-Stanton for review from Walker Books Australia and here’s the blurb form Goodreads:

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Erin loves to lie on the jetty, looking for the weirdest fish in the sea—the weirder, the better! And she knows the best ones must be further out, where her mum won’t let her go . . .

Out there in the deepest sea lies the Black Rock: a huge, dark and spiky mass that is said to destroy any boats that come near it! Can Erin uncover the truth behind this mysterious legend?

The Secret of Black Rock is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, from its glowing golden endpapers to the layered blues and greens of the deep sea.  It reminded us strongly of another 2017 picture book release, Grandad’s Secret Giant by David Litchfield, due to similar themes of not judging a book by its cover and the need to preserve, protect and learn about the things we don’t understand.

The story opens with various characters recounting the horrors of Black Rock, a rock formation close to a coastal fishing village that has a reputation for destruction and danger.  Erin, however, is not afraid and will employ all her cunning and sneakiness to stow away on her mother’s fishing boat to catch sight of the Rock, despite its fearsome personification in the eyes of the villagers.  When Erin is accidentally thrown overboard, she discovers the Rock’s secret and attempts to reveal this to the villagers – but they misinterpret her message and set out to destroy the Rock once and for all.

The illustrations here are so atmospheric, with the contrast between the warmth of home and the cold, roiling mass of the sea reinforcing the dangers of venturing too far from the safety of the shore.  When readers finally catch a glimpse of Black Rock they won’t be able to avoid feeling that the poor old rock has been a bit hard done by the fisherfolk, and will be hoping for a positive resolution to the story.  The mini-fleshlings in this dwelling also had a great time spotting all the different sea life that is depicted making their homes around the rock.

This story would be a great conversation starter in the classroom around issues of gossip and the negative effects that can come from judging without full knowledge of the situation.  Similarly, it would be the perfect choice for a bedtime read aloud on a cold and windy night, when the nature’s perilous side can feel all too real.  We Shelf-dwellers think it’s a winner.

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Over My Dead Body…

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TBR Friday

Following hot on the heels of last week’s TBR Friday, I have another contribution for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017 climb! I’ve snuck in a sneakily short read that’s been sitting on my TBR shelf for ages.  It wasn’t on my list to get through this year but because it was so quick to read, and I’m behind on my review schedule, I thought I’d knock it over and at least feel like I was making progress toward some kind of reading goal.  This week it’s book two in Kate and Sarah Klise’s 43 Old Cemetery Road middle grade series, Over My Dead Body.

Ten Second Synopsis:

Following on from the events of book one of the series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, abandoned child Seymour Hope, cranky writer Ignatius Grumply and ghostly Olive C. Spence are dwelling happily at Spence Mansion, when nasty sort Dick Tater investigates the living arrangements, and throws Seymour in an orphanage and Ignatius in an asylum.  Determined to reunite, Olive must put her ghostly skills into action to defy Tater and bring her boys home.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Three years less a month.  Bought in July 2014!!

Acquired:

From the Book Depository.  I bought all four of the books in the series at the same time and have since left all but the first languishing on the shelf.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

It’s a short book so I’ve always had the feeling that I could rip through it any old time.  Of course, with its series brethren on the shelf there has always been the lingering sense that I’d have to read them all at the same time.  Still, this is no excuse, because I could probably get through all of them in less than two hours total.

Best Bits:

  • I had completely forgotten that these books are formatted as a series of letters, newspaper articles and illustrations (which means I’ll also be submitting it for the Epistolary Challenge – hooray!).  In fact, Olive, the ghost, ONLY communicates through letter writing (and interrupting other people’s written work).  The constantly changing fonts and heavy emphasis on illustration is a major strength of the series.
  • I had sort of forgotten what had happened in the first book, since it’s been three years since I’d read it, but it was easy enough to pick up again.  The book has a little illustrated recap at the start so any readers new to the series will be brought up to speed.  It was interesting to see Ignatius being not so grumpy this time around, but Seymour’s parents are even nastier and more conniving here, if that’s possible.
  • Once again, Olive is beguiling as the ghost of an elderly mystery writer.  I loved how the townsfolk help her out despite claiming not to believe in her existence.
  • I still think this series is an absolute winner for early middle grade readers.  The story is quick and engaging, the format is brilliantly accessible and the characters are quirky enough to keep the attention.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • This story didn’t grab me quite as much as the first book did.  The plotline of Dick Tater trying to burn books and cancel Halloween seemed a bit silly really.  Luckily, it’s such a quick read that even if the story was a bit underwhelming, the format and the brevity make up for it.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

I’m glad I’ve got the series ready to go, because I want to see if the next book is as good as the first.

Where to now for this tome?

Not sure.  I might hang on to all the books til I’ve finished the series, then put them in Suitcase Rummage as a set.  Or donate them to the mini-fleshlings’ school library.

And with that, I have reached Pike’s Peak – twelve books – and my Mount TBR Challenge goal for the year.  I haven’t officially made the decision to extend my goal yet.  I’m going to ponder it a little more.  Stay tuned!  And you can check out my progress toward this year’s reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Dragon’s Green: World-building, Magic and Bookishness…

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Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $19.99

When you churn through as many books as I do during a year (and even I have to admit that my reading is a tad excessive) it’s rarer and rarer to come across a story that feels truly different.  Particularly in the middle grade fantasy bracket, it’s safe to say that many stories follow similar themes, tropes and imaginings.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we all love a story with familiar themes and fantastical worlds whose workings are easy to understand – but whenever I come across a book that feels a little different, there’s always a spark of excitement that flares to life in my stony chest.  So it was with Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas, which we received from Allen & Unwin for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

‘Some people think opening a book is a simple thing. It’s not. Most people don’t realise that you can get truly lost in a book. You can. Especially you. Do not open any of these books without my permission, Euphemia.’

Effie is a pupil at the Tusitala School for the Gifted and Strange. When her grandfather becomes ill she discovers she is set to inherit the family library. The more she learns about it the more unusual it is. Before she knows it, her life is at risk from dark forces from this world and beyond, intent on using the books and the power they contain.

With her grandfather gone and the adult world ignoring her, can her unreliable classmates help save her life?

Packed with puzzles, curses, evil nemeses and a troupe of beguiling heroes, Dragon’s Green is an adventure novel for children about the nature of magic.

This blurb is a little misleading, because it makes Effie’s story sound just like every other hero of every other middle grade fantasy ever written.  There are multiple ways in which Dragon’s Green sticks out from the pack and I will detail them now for you (you’re welcome!).  First up, the blurb makes no mention of the world in which Effie lives.  The story is set firmly in a world very like our own…however it is a speculative world (of the future?) in which a Worldquake – like an earthquake but affecting the entire globe at once – has knocked out the internet and general access to electricity and everyone is now reliant on archaic technologies to communicate (hello walkie talkies!), conduct research and generally get along.  This worldquake and its effects are mentioned a number of times, but we are never privy to its causes or its place in the scheme of this world.  I expect this will be expanded upon in further books.

Then there’s the Otherworld.  There’s the Realworld (our world, Effie’s world, for want of a better term) and the Otherworld.  The Otherworld runs on magic and renewed access to it has some connection to the Worldquake, but this connection is not entirely clear.  Again, I expect this will become more apparent in later books.

The Realworld and the Otherworld exist independently to each other for the most part, unless an individual has the ability to perform magic.  In this aspect, the book takes a bit of a Potter-esque approach, in that magic is known about (on some level) by non-magical people, but not talked about.  The world of those possessing magic is complex.  There are multiple roles or talents that the magically endowed could be born with – mage, witch, hero, warrior, healer, scholar – as well as magical objects (called boons) that can enhance the abilities of the magical.

Finally, the link between the Realworld and the Otherworld has a strong dependence on BOOKS!  (Hooray!)  Books (certain books, not every book) provide a portal to the Otherworld for certain readers and as such are sought after by the Diberi, a sect of magical individuals who wish to harness the power of being the Last Reader of certain books.

Have I convinced you yet, that this isn’t your average “kid-discovers-they-have-magic-powers-and-embarks-on-an-action-packed-and-mildly-humorous-quest-to-save-the-world” story?

Dragon’s Green felt refreshingly grown-up in its approach to the narrative.  Effie is not hapless and bumbling, stumbling upon the answers as she develops her power and a belief in her own abilities.  She is confident, innovative and knows when to delegate.  The four supporting characters, who throughout the story grow to become friends, have backstories that are explored in enough depth to make the characters seem authentic and their motivations believable.  There are multiple plot-threads that interact with and affect each other and far too many puzzles have been raised in this initial book to be resolved by the end of the story.  Essentially, the story feels like it comes with a history that we don’t necessarily know yet…but it will be revealed by the end of the trilogy.

This book was a bit of a sleeper for me.  I was interested from the beginning, but I didn’t really appreciate the originality and complexity of the story until I was deep into the final third.  Dragon’s Green is a book that celebrates thinkers of all persuasions, not those who rush into situations with reckless abandon.  Even the warrior character is clearly a lad with the brains for strategy and a backstory to hint at more depth than one would expect of a rugby-playing troublemaker.  I also absolutely loved the way that another supporting character, Maximillian’s, talents have been revealed here and the hint that good and evil are not necessarily clear cut.

As an aside, the dustjacket of the hardback edition that I received had a little sticker proclaiming “This Book Glows in the Dark!” so I checked and it does.  When left in a dark room, the cover turns into a delightfully atmospheric green overlay featuring the moon and the book title.  Unusually, this edition has gorgeous illustrated endpapers inside a misleadingly plain purple cover.  Nice touches, I thought, and ones to make this book a keeper.

It took me a while to come to this decision, but I have to nominate Dragon’s Green as a Top Book of 2017 – it’s got too much going on to be left languishing with your common-or-garden middle grade fantasy.

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Do yourself a favour and grab a copy today! Or, you know, once pay day rolls around.

Until next time,

Bruce

Keep in a Cold, Dark Place: Good Advice for Potatoes and Monsters…

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Today’s middle grade creepy, action tale features a brilliant cautionary tale for those who like to keep unusual pets at home.   We received Keep in a Cold, Dark Place by Michael F. Stewart from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Reaching for her dream, Limpy unleashes a cute, fluffy, NIGHTMARE …

Keep in a cold, dark place. That’s what’s written like some ancient law on every bag of potatoes the family farms. And it’s where Limpy fears she will always remain.

It’s also carved on a box of spheres she discovers in the cellar. Spheres that hatch.

Cute at first, the creatures begin to grow. Then the chickens disappear. The cat is hunted. And something sets the barn ablaze. To survive, Limpy will need to face her greatest fear. The whole family will. Or they may end up in a cold, dark place indeed.

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Limpy is the only daughter in her family and was unlucky enough to have her mother die while giving birth to her.  Her father is so stricken by grief that he keeps a potato-sack effigy of his dead wife in their home, her brothers are alternately bullying and selectively mute and Limpy wants nothing more than to escape her dreary existence and go to art school far away from their failing potato farm.  After discovering a strange box in the potato cellar, Limpy begins to hope that maybe her impossible dream isn’t so unlikely after all…but at the same time, she may have just unleashed an unholy terror onto the farm that could be the end of her broken family.

I thoroughly enjoyed this original and layered middle grade horror-action story. Other reviewers have compared the story to the film Gremlins and there are certainly shades of that fun film in the parts of the book relating to the “pets” that Limpy discovers, but in addition to that, Stewart has crafted an emotional story about grief, moving on and coping with change that is forced upon you.  There’s a definite atmosphere of oppression and depression that emanates from the descriptions of the farm and the town in general and the reader can definitely understand Limpy’s deep need for escape.  The depictions of Limpy’s family life were, at times, difficult to read as the grief and anger of her father, particularly, is raw and toxic despite the passing of time.

When the creatures that Limpy discovers stop being so cute and fluffy in favour of being more scaly and rampaging, the book alternates between bursts of chaotic action and poignant personal discoveries, as Limpy and her family face their deepest fears in order to save themselves.  Part of the emotional draw at the end of the story, I think, depends on the fact that Limpy is the only girl in this part of the story, and it is her older brothers and father (as well as some male neighbours) that have to put aside their bravado and acknowledge those things that make them frightened and hold them back.

I love that the author has selected a monster that isn’t so common in children’s literature, or “monster” stories generally, so the book provides an opportunity for young readers to discover a legend that they may not have encountered before.  I would highly recommend this book to adventurous young readers who enjoy action and fantasy elements blended with real-life problems.

I’m submitting this one for the Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2017 in the brown category.  Check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

TBR Friday: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls…

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TBR Friday

It’s TBR Friday once again and I’m happy to say I’ve knocked over another reasonably substantial tome in the last fortnight in my progress toward Pike’s Peak in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017.  The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant was another that I had marked down at the beginning of the year as one I particularly wanted to get through in this challenge, so it’s a relief to have finished it.

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Ten Second Synopsis:

Anastasia’s world is turned upside down when her parents are unexpectedly killed in a freak vacuum-cleaning accident and she is whisked away to live with her strange and not altogether friendly Great Aunts in a sprawling house that used to be St Agony’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Once there, Anastasia is plagued by the sense that something is not right – could it be the lunatic boy gardener, the proliferation of portraiture featuring monobrowed ladies, or simply the poor cooking that could be to blame?

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Since January, 2015.

Acquired:

From the Book Depository as a pre-order.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

It is one of a cluster of middle grade books on my TBR that are of a similar theme and because I have multiple of these to choose from, I end up choosing none at all.  Hence the fact that they are all still on my TBR shelf.

Best Bits:

  • The book has a humorous, light-hearted tone, which makes it very easy to flick through.  I quite enjoyed the style of humour at the start of the story and even dog-eared a page that had the main character saying, “Curse you, Winkles!” after tripping over a garden gnome (named Winkles) because I thought that the phrase was one I could certainly slip into my everyday speech patterns.
  • The story is easy to follow and the mystery isn’t too complex, so this is a good choice for when you are looking for a fun read that won’t make you work too hard.
  • Without spoiling the plot at all, I really enjoyed the originality of certain talents displayed by certain young male characters that ally themselves with Anastasia.  It’s so rewarding to discover “magical” style talents and folk that aren’t common in other literature for this age group.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • After initially enjoying the banterish, tangent-seeking style of humour in the story, by about halfway through I felt that it slowed the pace a little.
  • The resolution to Anastasia’s problems seemed a bit too wacky and convenient to me and appeared to be setting up for the second book in the series rather than solely concluding this one.   Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I won’t be chasing up the second as the narrative style grated on me after a while and I wanted the plot to move a bit quicker.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

I have absolutely no idea why I decided I had to have this so badly that I put it on pre-order.  I would have been just as happy borrowing it from the library I suspect.

Where to now for this tome?

To be sold at Suitcase Rummage.

So that’s eleven books down out of my hoped-for total of twelve for the year, and since we’re only at early June, I could well extend my goal to the second level of Mt. Blanc (24 books).  I think I’ll leave it as is at the moment though and see how I go.  The second half of the year is always busy with new releases and my review schedule for the next few months looks pretty packed as it is.  Anyway, if you’d like to check out my progress toward any of my reading challenges for 2017, you can do that here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: Bear Grylls Adventures…

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It’s adventure time today as we take a look at the first two books in a new early middle grade series by ubiquitous wild man Bear Grylls.  Bear Grylls Adventures is a new series for primary school readers featuring survival skills, a magic compass and everyday problems and we received copies of the first two titles in the series, The Blizzard Challenge and The Desert Challenge from Allen & Unwin for review.  Here are the books and blurbs from Goodreads:

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Bear Grylls Adventures: The Blizzard Challenge by Bear Grylls.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $9.99

The first thrilling adventure in the brand-new collectible series for young readers from survival expert and Chief Scout BEAR GRYLLS.

Olly isn’t enjoying activity camp. Why should he bother building a shelter or foraging for food with his teammates – he’d rather be at home in the warm and dry, where the sofa and the video games are.But then Olly gets given a compass with a mysterious fifth direction. When he follows it, he’s magically transported to a high mountain range where he meets survival expert Bear Grylls. With his help, Olly must learn to survive in sub-zero temperatures, including what to do if the ice cracks when you’re crossing a frozen lake, or a blizzard sets in . . .But can his adventure with Bear Grylls change Olly’s mind about teamwork and perseverance? And who will Olly give the compass to next?

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Bear Grylls Adventures: The Desert Challenge by Bear Grylls.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  $9.99

Sophie loves activity camp . . . but is terrified of insects. It’s so bad that she won’t go into the tent on her own, just in case something flies at her, or she steps on a creepie-crawlie. But when she’s given a compass by one of the other boys on the campsite, Sophie is magically transported to the desert on an adventure where they’re impossible to avoid!

With the help of survival expert Bear Grylls as her guide, she will learn how to withstand the extreme temperatures of the desert and how to spot mirages, encounter giant camel spiders, deadly scorpions and snakes . . . but will Sophie overcome her fear of insects back in the real world? And who will she give the compass to next?

I will be the first to admit that I know nothing about Bear Grylls except that he is an outdoorsy type whose real name probably isn’t Bear and appears, for all intents and purposes, to be one of those annoying people who is both talented and good-looking.  Thankfully, that is all one needs to know in order to enjoy these fast-paced and well structured tales.

The two books (and one assumes, the rest of the twelve-book series) follow the same format and are set around a group of children at a wilderness adventure school holiday camp.  Each book introduces the protagonist child and a few of their friends and highlights the protagonist’s particular personal growth issue that needs working on, before whooshing the child off, by means of a magical compass, to a survival-based adventure accompanied by none other than the Ursa Major himself.  The child is then magically transported back to the moment they left their normal life and puts the lessons learnt in their survival trek to good use before passing the magical compass on to the next unwitting victim.

These books are cleverly produced and will certainly hit the mark with their target audience.  They focus on problems that children working in groups are likely to have – Olly, protagonist of The Blizzard Challenge, tends to give up easily, while Sophie, protagonist of The Desert Challenge, has a mortal fear of insects that disrupts her enjoyment of outdoors activities.  The fact that by the end of the series, readers will have been introduced to all of the kids at the camp is a brilliant idea because it means the books are linked and will have familiar characters in them, but don’t necessarily need to be read in order.  The use of the magic compass injects a fun dose of fantasy into the tales and keeps them from being too dry (except for The Desert Challenge – geddit? Dry? Desert?) and also provides the protagonists the opportunity to learn from a real-life survival skills master in a way that doesn’t rely on basing things in reality.

The books are illustrated throughout in black and white and the font is big enough, and chapters short enough, not to be daunting to reluctant readers or those who struggle.  The books would also be a great option for read-alouds to younger children who don’t have the ability to read chapter books themselves yet, but are interested in longer and more varied stories.  It’s also encouraging to see that the characters in the books are of diverse cultural backgrounds and that this is reflected in the illustrations.

The only niggling problem I had with these books – and this is speaking from the viewpoint of one who has sat on the shelf of youth workers and  teachers alike – is the fact that these children are swept off to the company of a strange man in a deserted place and forced to follow him around and spend the night with him.  I realise that I might be being a bit hypersensitive here since it’s hinted at that these sections of the book may be dreams or magic or whatever, but I did get a little bit of the creep-factor while reading the first book, when the young lad has to build a snuggly little ice cave in which to spend the night tucked up with a grown man who he doesn’t know from Adam, without his parents’ knowledge or consent.  In the first book, the child also has to disrobe quickly in front of Bear after falling into icy water.  There’s also the slight weirdness of having a magic compass that brings him a new child every time.  From an adult’s point of view, there’s something not-quite-right about it all.

I don’t mean to throw shade on Bear – I’m sure he’s a perfectly upstanding guy and has his Blue Card – but I would have thought that someone in the editing or planning process would have picked this up and suggested some very basic and unintrusive changes to the story that could retain the adventure and survival aspect of the story while teaching a hugely important survival skill of childhood: be extremely wary of any adult who wants to spend time on their own with an unrelated child without their parents’ knowledge.  Surely the Scouts themselves would have Child Protection Policies that disallowed one on one adult to child sleep outs,  so I just find it a bit strange that the stories came out in this form.

Putting that aside for the moment though, the books are otherwise sure to be a hit with young readers who love “real-life” stories but aren’t necessarily drawn to nonfiction.

Until next time,

Bruce

Fi50 Reminder and an Inspirational Early Chapter Book

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fi50

It’s that time of the month again – Fiction in 50 kicks off on Monday!  To participate, just create  a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and then add your link to the comments of my post on Monday.  For more information, just click on that snazzy typewriter at the top of this post.  Our prompt for this month is…

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Hope to see you there!


Ballerina Dreams: A Tale of Hope, Hard Work and Finding Your Groove…

 

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Ballerina Dreams by Michaela & Elaine DePrince.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $14.99

 

The world of early chapter books seems to have expanded greatly since I was a youngling and nowadays there are a plethora of beautifully presented, exquisitely formatted, engaging and accessible stories out there for newly confident readers.  Ballerina Dreams: A True Story by professional ballet dancer Michaela DePrince and her adoptive mother Elaine is one such story.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At the age of three, Michaela DePrince found a photo of a ballerina that changed her life. She was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone at the time, but was soon adopted by a family and brought to America. Michaela never forgot the photo of the dancer she once saw, and decided to make her dream of becoming a ballerina come true. She has been dancing ever since, and after a spell as a principal dancer in New York, now dances for the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.

Beautifully and gently illustrated by Ella Okstad, Ballerina Dreams is the younger-reader edition of Michaela DePrince’s highly moving memoir, Hope in a Ballet Shoe.

Not being a particular fan of ballet, I was a bit trepidatious going into this book, but I was drawn in by the young, brown-skinned girl on the cover.  I happen to have some familial ties with a fantastic blog called FleshTone, that promotes representation of all skin colours in all areas of everyday life, from underwear to toys and beyond.  FleshTone, driven by its founder, Tayo Ade, has a particular focus on dancewear for darker skinned performers, because bizarrely, despite the fact that there must be thousands upon thousands of non-white people involved in dancing worldwide, production of flesh-coloured dancewear to suit such people is hard to find.  I immediatley wondered, while reading this book, whether Michaela DePrince has trouble finding flesh-coloured dancewear to suit her fleshtone…but I digress.  Back to the book.

Ballerina Dreams is the early reader version of DePrince’s memoir Hope in a Ballet Shoe.  DePrince herself hails from Sierra Leone, where she lived in an orphanage after her parents were killed in the war there.  Adopted by Elaine DePrince, along with her best friend and several others from the orphanage, Michaela moves to the USA with her new family and is able to pursue the dream she has fostered since finding an abadoned magazine with a picture of a dancer on the front: to learn ballet.

The story touches briefly on DePrince’s struggles as a dark-skinned dancer in a world in which such dancers are scarce, before ending on her accomplishments as a professional dancer and her desire to inspire and encourage other young people of colour to pursue their dreams with hard work and patience.

The book is beautifully presented, with large print and colour illustrations throughout, appearing both as full page spreads and wrapped around sections of text.  As such, the story will be accessible for young readers as both a read-alone or a read-aloud with an adult.  It’s wonderful to see that books – and particularly nonfiction books – highlighting individuals from diverse backgrounds are being published for this age group.

I would highly recommend this engaging tale for young fans of dance and those who enjoy true stories told in accessible ways.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #32: a book about an interesting woman.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce